In part one, we reviewed the basic definition of Psychological Operations and its relations to standard propaganda. Psychological Operations is actually a relatively modern concept but had roots long before the advent of the 20th century. The United States government and military, with a few exceptions, did not effectively utilize propaganda or public relations during earlier wars of the young republic. Even when the U.S. inherited a pseudo-empire after the Spanish and Philippine-American War, conventional military tactics were considered sufficient enough to win them. But the start of a new war, unprecedented in technology and scale, would forever change that notion.
A modern war, modern propaganda
Wake up America! Civilization calls every Man, Woman, and Child!”
-American WWI Propaganda Poster Slogan
The Great War was the first of many things: The first to see large scale industrialized warfare, the invention of the armored tank, aircraft in combat, and the first use of chemical weapons on such a large and terrible scale. With new methods of dissemination being developed because of technology (airplanes, airships, modern printing press, radio, telephone, etc) this was the perfect storm of dissemination that both sides were too eager to exploit. This is arguably the first time the Great Powers, including the United States, developed what we would understand a modern form of Psychological Operations or Psychological Warfare.
During the initial outbreak of the War, both Entente and Central Powers rushed to capitalize on influencing their domestic and foreign audiences. Great Britain, with a long history of Imperial rule, control over the seas, better grasp of mass communication, and more robust “information” departments (Ministry of Information, National War Aims Committee, and the War Propaganda Bureau, later the Department of Information), could utilize this more successfully and mitigate Germany’s international efforts. Having control over 24% of the Earth’s surface since 1815 was an advantage Great Britain capitalized to maximum effort. “The Great War,” a YouTube series that chronicles WWI as it unfolded exactly 100 years to the day, does a good job of summarizing propaganda war efforts by the leading powers.
Both Great Britain and Germany worked hard to try to convince the American public to either join or stay out of the war respectively. Britain was generally more successful, given close historical ties, common language, shared culture, and established trade. Britain also leveraged her considerable clout with mass media, which was further helped when Britain cut the transatlantic cable to continental Europe shortly after the breakout of war. Entente propaganda to the U.S. overwhelmed any Central Power’s ability to reciprocate. The British highlighted each German mistake with great aplomb (The Zimmerman telegram and Sinking of the Lusitania the most notable examples), to the American public.
With U.S. entry into the war in 1917, America quickly picked up their craft and learned the art of modern dissemination. Like the British, the United States set up different agencies to produce propaganda: the civilian Committee on Public Information (CPI) chaired by George Creel, and the U.S. Army Propaganda Section G-2D, General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, commanded by CPT Heber Blankenhorn.
The U.S. Military at the entry of “The war to end all wars” was quite small: 200,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army, 80,000 in the National Guard. The U.S. Navy was in better shape, being the world’s third largest naval power at the time. Although the U.S. had furnished weapons and supplies to the Entente powers for years, the country’s economy and production capabilities had not expanded enough to be sufficient for her own wartime needs. As a result, the CPI pressed forward to rally a somewhat divided American public, creating countless posters to boost production, grow more food, forego needed war material, and enlist in the services. The agency used a variety of different methods to reach the public, most famously a branch of volunteers called the Four Minute Men. Their job was to deliver a concise, approved message to public gatherings within 4 minutes. In print media, the most iconic imagery of the time is a poster of Uncle Sam pointing to the viewer, created by James Montgomery Flagg.
On the war front, the Allied (Entente) forces developed a vast number of different leaflets to disseminate to the enemy. Leaflets were the best medium: they could be delivered by a multitude of different methods, were simple and to the point. The Allied forces used a variety of different means for delivery: balloons, artillery shells that contained leaflets instead of explosives, and airplanes. The airplane was the generally preferred method of delivery. Some American pilots were known to have a reckless streak and tried to see how close they could drop leaflets on enemy lines without getting shot down.
Most Allied leaflets were morale related in nature, such as urging the enemy soldiers to surrender for better medical treatment, food, and safety. Others were political cartoons that showed relaxed Monarchs, leaders and rich pampered elites while the average soldier toiled in misery.
American leaflets, perhaps naively, refrained from showing injured or dead bodies. The British and French had long passed these reservations in their propaganda leaflets. The U.S. military also took great lengths to showcase the growing numbers and capabilities of the U.S. Forces, making continual resistance seemingly pointless in the later stages of the war. One of the more interesting pamphlets were created by the so-called “Friends of German Democracy” Americans of German descent, which urged that the true enemy was the German Imperial Government and urged German soldiers to overthrow it. Although behind in numbers compared to their French and British counterparts, CPT Blankenhorn wrote that U.S. Forces dropped three million leaflets over German lines by the time of Armistice.
How effective were American psychological and propaganda efforts in WWI? It’s hard to make a direct correlation to one activity, but CPT Blankenhorn claimed that at the end of the Argonne campaign the bulk of the prisoners (Creel claimed 8 out of 10) had leaflets on their persons. Some surrendering German soldiers quickly asked for the promised rations on the leaflets, to their vexed American captors who themselves may not have eaten for 24 hours. General Erich Ludendorff of the German High Command, writing about the broader Allied effort, “…with such cleverness, and on such a large scale that many people could no longer distinguish between enemy propaganda and their own sentiment.”
With the signing of Armistice on November 11, 1918, both the C.P.I. Agency and the U.S. Army propaganda section were effectively disbanded. With the war over, the U.S. largely turned back to her pre-war isolationist policies and saw little need to keep these programs in place. It would take another, bigger world conflict for the U.S. to rethink these measures.
- American Experience: The Great Transatlantic Cable
- ALLIED PSYOP of WWI and German WWI Psyop
- The Great War
- Psychological Operations and Air Power: Its Hits and Misses
- WWI Artifacts and Memories: A Quick Read about the Four Minute Men
- I want you for U.S. Army: nearest recruiting station
- Imperial War Museum Collection
- Germany and the Americas
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